A DISTINGUISHED writer and editor, Joseph Lee Wood, was also a former Eagle Scout and passionate birder, who, the day after his arrival to the Unity ’99 journalism conference in Seattle, Washington, rented a car and drove to the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier, nearly ninety miles southeast, with binoculars in hand. He shared breakfast at the Westin Hotel with then Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, along with seven other journalists and scholars, including Harvard professor Cornel West. He scheduled to meet a colleague the following day and then left for a short hike in the park.
He was not seen for the remainder of the conference and didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails. Upon learning that Joe had not checked out of his hotel, his friend and former girlfriend, journalist Somini Sengupta, reported him missing. The National Park Service dispatched personnel including rangers, firefighters, and volunteers. With the help of bloodhounds and German shepherds, the rescue team scoured the southwest side of the mountain. A helicopter hovered and maneuvered above the area where Joe was last seen.
Bruce Gaumond, a retired Boeing employee, recognized Joe’s image in a public notice of his disappearance and contacted park authorities to say he encountered Joe around 4 p.m. on July 8, 4,800 feet up the trail near where snow and ice concealed streams beneath the path. After conferring about the birds Gaumond spotted that afternoon on the path to Mildred’s Point (among them Steller’s jay, scrub jay, and western tanager), he warned Joe about an unstable snow bridge. They stood talking in two to four feet of compacted snow. He also shared that Joe was lightly dressed and not prepared for the hike, which included a steep incline through dense wilderness of Douglas fir and western hemlock. A hiker’s blog entry, posted several weeks after Joe went missing, reports the trail features steep, rock-strewn hillsides and a bridge over a cascading waterfall.
Joe’s network of literary and journalistic friends, including Somini and his literary agent, Faith Childs, raised funds to aid in his search and, suspecting foul play, hired a private investigator. His parents, sister, and several friends traveled to participate in the rescue mission, but the search was called off after four and a half days due to heavy rains and strong winds that made subsequent efforts dangerous for personnel and volunteers. The rains also melted the snow and whatever tracks that might have led to Joe Wood’s body. When the search resumed in September, it too proved fruitless. Having spent $49,302 on Joe’s recovery, the National Park Service ended their mission once again and speculated that he fell through that snow bridge, his body likely transported downstream.
That year brought the sixth-largest snowfall in the history of the mountain. Three other people went missing in 1999, their bodies also presumed buried under blankets of mountain snow and water. Joe Wood became the sixty-fifth missing person in the history of Mount Rainier National Park.
All who knew Joe agree the Bronx-born, Yale-educated writer was destined to become one of the era’s leading voices on matters of race, politics, and culture. By the time of his disappearance, he’d written for some of the country’s most esteemed newspapers and magazines, worked as an editor for the Village Voice, and subsequently advanced to become one of the few Black editors at a major New York publishing house.
His reputed passing instigated a number of online remembrances and tributes. Adam Schatz, writing in the magazine Dissent, recalled Joe’s “big bookish glasses” and “urban nonchalance.” After speaking to Joe’s remarkable record as an editor who acquired and edited culturally important books, along with his prolific writings, writer Martha Southgate predicted in the Black Issues Book Review that his unfinished book about his family would have been typically “revealing, penetrating, unforgiving in its examination of race and all its discontents.” More poignant, she recalled Joe’s friendship, someone who cared for her son while she went into labor with her second child, someone who comforted her during moments of anxiety. In an article about Black genius on the website The Root, Veronica Chambers declared, “Joe was our generation’s Baldwin.” She reflected: “He taught me to be curious, to be intellectually rigorous and that there was no place in my blackness, in my femaleness, that I did not belong.” Joe’s intolerance for vapid ideologies pushed him as a writer to avoid facile conclusions and to seek topics for his writings that led to complex arguments about identity and society. In a Yeatsian sense, Joe quarreled with both himself and the world.
Joe’s work often employed an ethnographic approach to journalism. He once traveled to Tokyo to study and explain the cultural phenomenon of blackfacers, a subculture of Japanese youth in the 1990s who darkened their skin as a means of both appropriating and paying homage to African Americans and their culture—this in a country known at the time for its wide use of Sambo iconography to sell products. The complexity of anti-Black racism along with reverence for Black life typified the kinds of stories Joe sought to explore, which normally ended with a rebuttal if not a debunking of myths by which ethnic groups adhere. “While our tribes, and their memories, and their stories, did make us,” he wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “they also have nothing to do with it. The heart, after all, is raised on a mess of stories, and then it writes its own.”
In one of several public images that survive of Joe, a grainy black-and-white, he sports a baseball cap, goatee, and a light mustache not fully grown. He seems captured between youth and manhood. In another picture, he is visibly older, his face comparatively filled in. He looks confident, settled into his career as an editor at the New Press, and just out of the frame; one imagines his hands on his hips, akimbo, ready to tackle life. His wrinkled jean shirt slightly billows, and, tellingly, a pair of high-grade binoculars rests on his chest.
Writer and editor Joseph Lee Wood presumably died alone on a hiking trek twenty-one years ago sometime between July 8 and 13, 1999, on the Rampart Ridge Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. He was thirty-four years old. His body has never been found. He was an African American male.
For years I have attempted to discern the meaning of Joe’s disappearance, maybe never so avidly as in these past recent months: a Black man goes birding in the Cascade Mountains and is never seen again. This summer marked another year in which I silently mourned his death, a man I never knew yet whose fate I frequently recall whenever I set out on a hiking trail in the Green Mountain National Forest. When I park my car at a trailhead, before I begin my ascent, I see Joe’s easygoing face. Last year, on the twentieth anniversary of his vanishing, I proposed to my wife that I fly to Seattle and trace Joe Wood’s steps as a way of memorializing his life. After expressions of genuine sympathy and support, my wife, whose previous husband, like Joe, died unexpectedly, forcefully declared the trip out of the question.
Recently, while hiking Mount Horrid in Vermont along a spur trail that leads to the Great Cliffs where peregrine falcons nest, I wondered what species of bird alit on a snowy branch that Joe glimpsed that fatal day. The American pipit? The willow flycatcher? Or the white-tailed ptarmigan? I wondered, had he lived, what kinds of clarity he might have brought to bear on significant events that have marked our nation since his disappearance: the terrorist attacks of September 11, the election of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, as well as the tragic killings of African Americans that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. I also wondered if his heart condition, diagnosed several months prior to the conference in Seattle, was a factor in his demise. I wondered if he was the victim of animal predation, a mountain lion or bear perhaps. But most of all, I wondered if Joe succumbed to the harsh conditions of an ascendant climb, as National Park officials surmised, or if, as his family believed, he was the victim of racialized violence, a quite serious likelihood from our perch in the twenty-first century.
Last year 59 percent of the crimes reported on federally funded lands were committed against people. The Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service reports that 2019 had the highest number of cases in the past five years involving sexual assault, physical assault, child sexual assault, stalking, burglary, and vandalism—which begs the question, How safe are outdoor spaces, especially for people of color?
I met Joe once after a reading in Philadelphia to celebrate a book he recently edited, Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, which featured essays by the country’s Black intellectual elite—Robin D. G. Kelley,
Hilton Als, Adolph Reed, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, and Patricia Hill Collins. At the signing table, his face slightly obscured beneath his cap with the ubiquitous Malcolm X logo, he nonchalantly inscribed books, looking coolly bored. He was the quintessence of hip-hop energy with an intellectual swagger. I instantly felt kinship. Although he attended elite schools, his writings and demeanor displayed a style and sophisticated awareness I attributed to dual citizenship in both the streets and publishing circles. He was slightly older and among that constellation of writers I looked up to who expertly analyzed the impact of racism and worked to pen words that would aid in the struggle for human dignity, which, as we once again witness, is an ongoing pursuit in America.
This summer, as the country grieved the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I took weekly hikes to nearby peaks, hoping to see evidence of rare sightings such as the elusive ghost flower. I climbed Sunset Ledge, a popular destination on the Long Trail, and marveled at the startling panoramic views of Champlain Valley and, just beyond, New York’s shimmering, bluish, silhouetted Adirondack Mountains. While social media seethed in anger at the treatment of birder Chris Cooper in Central Park, I was lifting my binoculars on Flanders Hill, hoping to catch sight of the American woodcock and its famed courtship flight. At Taconic Ramble State Park, I watched rust-colored curly dock and statuesque mullein emerge against a meadow of swaying Indian grass.
It didn’t escape me that these activities seemed far away and arguably disengaged from the series of events that had America once again facing its collective trauma, its troubling, ongoing legacy of racism and violent policing of African Americans. In an age of social unrest, general walks in the mountains carry an element of escapism. Marketing executives and tourist offices craft messages meant to profit on the idea of idyllic flights into the natural world. During this election season, conservative political strategists have been trumpeting that such rural and suburban tranquility and property are under threat by the sweeping waves of Black Lives Matter protests.
I admit to a small measure of curated diversion from the headlines if only to help me curry some measure of sanity and perspective. And I actually relish the solitude offered by each isolated glen and viridescent glade. However, the sad reality is, unlike my fellow trail walkers or bikers or kayakers, I never fully enjoy nature outings because of the persistent fact of the precariousness of Black life and the thoughts of what potential harm might befall owed to the color of my skin.
I lament that I cannot become too absorbed in my wanderings in the woods, what Theodore Roosevelt laughably once wrote in his appreciation of John Muir as the giant grandeur of “surroundings more congenial”—laughable for me because full immersion in the wonders of nature could lead to wanton danger that is far from congenial. Although other hikers might be looking to avoid a fatal encounter with a grizzly bear or a mountain lion, I am on the lookout for unfriendly gazes from other people on the trail or for when my exaggerated greeting, which I often dispense in passing after noticing a startled look of surprise at my presence “in the wild,” goes unacknowledged or barely reciprocated. Even certain outdoor apparel signals to me potential harm. For this reason, over the years Joe Wood’s unexplained death has become a cautionary tale and incessant reminder. Many Black people I spoke to about Joe, some who knew him well, confessed to picturing Joe encountering a group of white supremacists or racist, off-the-grid militia members. What else could explain the disappearance of a Black man on a warm, cloudless day in July?
On one occasion, walking a nearby trail, my wife passed a tall, silent, late-twentyish male with oily, matted hair. He looked homeless. He walked shirtless with a light sheen of sweat and dispossession about him. I questioned his purpose in the park. At the time, Vermont was in the grip of an opioid addiction; his deportment was of someone seeking their next high. I suddenly fretted that our car might be vandalized but decided to continue to our destination and avoid a sudden, suspicious trek back behind him. After he was out of sight, looking over my shoulder, I bent to the ground, weighing and tossing in my hand the largest rocks I could gather in my pockets in case he attempted to furtively overtake us. Joe’s presumed death and disappearance has me not only imagine the worst in human beings but also has me imagine the what-if scenario: What if someone attacks me on a trail or holds me up at gunpoint on a ridge? Do I run or attempt to negotiate for my life? Facing definite mortal harm, I have thought to attempt a cell phone recording and toss the device last minute into a thicket of ferns, hoping that some future rescuer would triangulate my whereabouts and discover evidence of my undoing.
Such mental exercises are irrational, and often I am ashamed, for it also means I carry fear inside my body that potentially separates me from other human beings. Like many members of ethnic families, I had been conditioned by my elders to not cast too far from the loving protection of community, to walk in the world with caution.
Born in the early decades of the twentieth century, my grandparents were haunted by horrific stories of lynching and other kinds of violence against Black people. Joe’s narrative provides another of what can happen when we stray from the harbors of our known safety. However, as members of the post–civil rights generation, society had encouraged Joe and me to take advantage of the opportunities that were forbidden to previous generations of Black people because of segregation, exclusion, intimidation, and other forms of subjugation. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people of color were often legally banned from recreational sites such as national and state parks, which helped to lend credence to the idea of the outdoors and public recreational spaces as “white spaces” and, by default for a certain generation of people of color, unsafe spaces.
Back in the late 1990s, when I told my southern grandfather I was driving and camping cross-country to live and attend graduate school in Oregon, he incredulously asked: Do they have Black people out there? Did I have plans to join a Black church? Where might I get a haircut? He was testing the presence of precedence. Without it, all life decisions for Black people, including bird-watching in a park or hiking on a mountain, were suspect. Such was the pitch of his wariness; in his mind, my venturing into the wilderness would be akin to a death wish, evidence that I was longing to meet my maker before my time.
Last summer, my father and stepmother visited Vermont from Delaware. Retired, both were born and had made lives in and around Philadelphia. Returning home after an afternoon at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park and a patio lunch in Woodstock, my wife and I decided to take a detour and drive them to Sugar Hill Reservoir, where we recently spotted nesting pairs of loons. As we turned off Goshen Ripton Road into further wilderness, I noticed that my dad and his wife, previously boisterous and animated, were audibly silent. The dirt road narrows to a single lane, and the foliage becomes dense as branches taunt and scratch the sides of a car. The meaning and weight of their hushed presence suddenly occurred to me. I imagined they saw themselves starring in the sequel to the movie Get Out.
When we finally reached the parking area to the reservoir, they barely made a gesture to leave the car to take in the scenic fifteen-acre body of water with mountains rising on all sides. Several kayakers skimmed along its sun-laden surface, and two loons paddled away, chorusing their familiar melancholic tremolo. I was able to take a photo of my family on the fishing platform. Once I finished clicking away at their forced smiles, they hurriedly returned to the security of the car.
When it comes to the natural world and danger, I understand their caution, as well as that of my grandfather and many other Black people. Recently, a colleague at a nearby college, while discussing different types of privileges during a Zoom meeting, dramatically announced that she could never partake of the natural beauty of Vermont because of the potential danger she might encounter as a Black woman, which triggered a painful and poignant realization for many on the call. Like the biracial character in James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man who stumbles upon a horrific lynching and thus commits to living as a white person to avoid the risks to his brown body, some witness or inherit violent narratives and are shaped to live circumspect and insular lives out of fear or self-preservation.
By all accounts, Joe Wood lacked the fear that psychically hems most people in and prevents them from experiencing life at the margins of their comfort levels. However, in our day and age, mounting evidence suggests it might be a particular form of disconnection for a Black person to wake up each morning and believe they would never be killed as an unarmed citizen of the United States, or could take a jog without being chased by an armed group of self-appointed racist deputies, or could sleep peacefully throughout the evening without a no-knock warrant being imposed by trigger-happy police.
Maybe what Joe suffered is a pure belief in his condition as a free human being, unencumbered by the social ills and reservations that beset most African Americans. The thought makes his death all the more devastating. Part of the allure of being in the great outdoors is that philosopher John Locke’s idea of “perfect freedom” possibly might be found in nature, that here, race or any other aspect of one’s existence does not factor. As J. Drew Lanham declares in his memoir The Home Place: “Not a single cardinal or ovenbird has ever paused in dawnsong declaration to ask the reason for my being.” Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, recently stated on the podcast MeatEater: “The trees do not know that I am Black. The birds are going to sing no matter how much money is in my bank account. The flowers are going to bloom no matter my gender or my political party. Nature gives us this broad platform to be.” Or so we believe.
In a later conversation with my grandfather, before I set off on my trip to Oregon, he more directly expressed his worry of anti-Black racism in the Northwest. I remember defiantly and quite foolishly telling him that I would not have my movement in the world be dictated by a few closed-minded, backward people. Not wanting to validate his worldview, I never shared with him before his death that I was profiled regularly by the city of Eugene policemen or that, on a particularly slow night, workers in a restaurant intentionally dumped and stirred red pepper flakes and excessive amounts of cayenne into my spaghetti sauce such that my friends had to witness me coughing, my eyes tearing, as the staff peeked and laughed through the porthole of a kitchen door. I never told him how, almost a year to the day we spoke, exiting a bar with a friend, I encountered two young white men with shaved heads, dark blue jeans, and Doc Martens steel-toe boot, who yelled “white power” and began taunting us with racial slurs until we broke into a sprint, after which one of them, brandishing a gleaming blade, pursued us; never told him how we had to dip into an alley and sit in a backyard for an hour in hiding.
I thought of those fraught moments in Oregon the day I heard Joe went missing. I was driving through East Texas on my way to New Orleans and a job at Xavier University of Louisiana, wary not to stop too long as I had been warned and instructed by white friends familiar with racial conflicts in that part of the state. A hiking companion in Oregon who I used to join along the coast near the Tahkenitch Creek Trail called my cell phone. I was on I-10. They had glimpsed the headlines of a newspaper at a gas station about a Black writer who went missing in the Cascade Mountains and confessed they initially thought it was me and wanted to assure my safety.
For those who speculated that Joe had been the victim of a mauling by a predatory animal, no tattered clothes were found to support the theory. Others believe Joe had a heart attack climbing the steep sections of the trail and never regained consciousness. But again, his body would have been found. It was a clear day, and likely more than several people were out in the park, a popular destination for many would-be hikers.
Here is probably what haunts me most about Joe Wood’s death: initially I accepted as true what the park rangers explained as Joe’s likely demise. However, with each new year, I come to believe that Joe’s death was most likely a murder. I possess no forensic data or solid research to support my conclusion except for the inexhaustible racism in America we read about and that is increasingly captured on video. As race relations deteriorate, it starts to seem increasingly likely that Joe Wood’s brilliant career and life were short-circuited by foul play. For this reason, he ominously hovers in my imagination as much as do my treasured, summer childhood memories below my great-aunt’s sprawling peach tree or running beside her dusty chickens in Tennessee, where I discovered my affinity for natural spaces, so different from my life in central Philadelphia.
Even in nature, I am plagued: will I someday too be swallowed up by some malevolent force and go missing from my family and friends? Joe Wood disappeared in one of the most beautiful landscapes in America. What is decidedly disconcerting about violence of any kind is the apparent complicity of the setting, which, for some, also feels scarred and wounded. Nature is never just a witness; it is a participant. The benign portrait of the outdoors as congenial erases the rightful terror that exists and has occurred historically in such places. Any student of Joe’s work would say that he would be the first to arrive at the same conclusion. In reaction to the death of Yusef Hawkins at the hands of a mob in the Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst in 1989, Joe wrote in the Village Voice:
I could have been killed on that street corner in Bensonhurst. And that corner is precisely where we part company—“I” am not you, unless you share my heritage and look like me. My “I” is fatally specific: I am a brown-skinned descendant of enslaved Africans, holocausted Cherokees, and invisible Europeans, and I am despised and feared and envied the world over. Define me black.
Like many of his friends and admirers, I marvel at what contributions the writer Joe Wood, a Black outdoorsperson, could have made to our lives. I believe in due time he would have been a remarkable environmental journalist and a necessary advocate for a deeper humanity and regard for life. Undoubtedly, we could use Joe’s clarity, intellect, and freedom today as we attempt to destroy the forces that render Black life a threat. If indeed Joe was the victim of racial animus like the spectacle of Black deaths we find abhorrent in our newsfeeds today, one wonders if his assailants would have paused if they were aware of his distinct talents, his intelligence, his great potential to write us toward wholeness, to illumine the great problems that debilitate us as a nation. Most likely not; his life would not have mattered.
Joe did not die in his beloved New York City, but he acutely understood the extent to which his fragile existence was a condition and legacy of being a Black person in the United States, his fate inextricably linked to a history of violence and constant risk, so much so that he believed such fragility defined his Black body. And yet he was willing to take that body into the world, that body whose blackness he described as “a badge of terrifying knowledge, a certificate of human accomplishment, its possibility and strength, like a god or a flame inside cupped hands.” O